skip to Main Content
Technology
Deep Dive into Headless CMS Back-End Options
February 02 2021

There are a multitude of Headless Content Management System (HCMS) options available. Choosing the right one for your company’s website will depend a great deal on how you will use it, who will use it, and who will manage it – making “usability” or “user-friendliness” for non-technical users a primary factor in your decision-making process. You should also consider a HCMS’s SEO optimization capability, its pricing, website security, technical support, and design options – including customization and scalability, as well as data portability, supported extensions and addons – and, of course, your company’s objectives for developing a new (or improving an existing) brand website.

What HCMS a software engineer would choose may be quite different from what your head of marketing or sales might choose. That’s why it’s important to make these decisions with your technical team and your sales and marketing teams, who would together review a cost-benefit analysis of your best HCMS options. Shopping for the ideal HCMS for your company’s site is neither a purely technical decision, nor is it one that should be made entirely by non-technical personnel. That’s how expensive mistakes are made, especially when promised “bells and whistles” don’t meet the reality “road test” of building a capable, scalable and dynamic HCMS. Final decision-making will require a conclusive, team approach, so that everyone is satisfied with the outcome.

As I mentioned, there are lots of HCMS options out there to choose from, and some are better than others for a variety of reasons. To begin, you will need to determine the best backend, or “server-side,” applications and database architecture you’ll need to support the frontend, or “client-side,” user experience you want to deliver. In this article, I’m focusing on the backend HCMS options for you and your relevant teams to consider – but rather than run through a plethora of choices, I’m going to focus on highlighting the ones I favor. I am not comparing feature-to-feature for each, but rather, which pluses – or “pros,” and which minuses – or “cons,” are most commonly experienced by web and app developers. Keep in mind that we all have our preferences.

WordPress

While every CMS has its pluses and minuses, WordPress has been out there long enough to be thoroughly tested. This is especially true because it is an open-source platform that naturally invites thoughtful analysis from skilled software engineers using the platform. In other words, we know what WordPress does and doesn’t do well on its own, and that knowledge has led to some technical workarounds to overcome inherent flaws – and they all have their flaws. WordPress is the most popular CMS platform, with 45% of the CMS market share for over 28 million websites worldwide (32% in the U.S. and nearly 40% worldwide). WordPress offers thousands of independently developed plugins to customize your website in a multitude of ways – but its open-source framework and plugins can render it less secure than some other HCMS options if it is not routinely updated and managed. Here’s a short list of WordPress pros and cons:

WordPress Pluses

  • Affordable
  • User-friendly
  • Customizable
  • Lots of addons and extensions (plugins) choices for:
  • SEO optimization 
  • Social media engagement
  • Site visitor “insights”
  • Ecommerce 
  • Blogging 
  • Membership
  • No HTML editing or FTP software required
  • Community support

WordPress Minuses

  • Website must be hosted elsewhere for WordPress.com (the less robust WordPress.org version, often used by bloggers, is hosted by WordPress)
  • Having so many options may feel daunting to beginners
  • Security vulnerabilities that require strict attention to updates

Drupal

Drupal is an open-source CMS platform that has found its popularity among leading fintech, healthcare, education, sports, entertainment, government, nonprofit and media organizations. The Drupal community is nearly a million and a half members strong, out of which tens of thousands of extensions, or “modules,” have been developed for free community use. The simple Drupal core version provides basic CMS features that make it possible to create blogs, forums and user-generated web content. Drupal 9 rolled out recently and offers more bells and whistles than prior versions. Drupal asserts that 1 in 30 websites worldwide are built on Drupal’s platforms, including NASA, OXFAM and The Economist.

Drupal Pluses

  • Free
  • Easy content authoring tools
  • Over 40,000 free extensions or “modules” (third party integrations)
  • Multilingual site support (requires relevant modules and FE stack integration)
  • Reliable security
  • Flexible and highly scalable integrations
  • Excellent for digital marketing uses and web content management owing to the wide variety of modules developed for these purposes
  • Community support

Drupal Minuses

  • Not beginner friendly (more technical than WordPress)
  • Really should be managed by an experienced web developer

Adobe Experience Manager

Adobe Experience Manager is a weighty CMS. You can accomplish a lot, if you have the right web development and design team on hand to make it happen. This is definitely not a DIY CMS, unless you have substantial experience working with Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite and possess up-to-date web development skills. Even experienced software engineers often need to undergo additional AEM training before they dive in. That said, there are lots of Enterprise and medium-sized businesses that have built engaging, powerful CMS websites using Adobe Experience Manager, including LinkedIn, MasterCard, Verizon Wireless and NVIDIA. Fans of AEM are often very loyal, once they’ve gotten over the learning curve.

Adobe Experience Manager Pluses

  • Drag and drop interface
  • Marketing-friendly and e-commerce focused templates
  • Managed services in the cloud
  • Reliable security
  • Easy to control images, videos and other key marketing assets
  • Customized forms
  • Intelligent search
  • Powered for social engagements with Adobe Social integration
  • Separate teams can manage their own digital assets
  • AI-powered to personalize user experiences
  • Lots of creative options and integrations from Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite of products
  • Cross-channel content features that allow you to reach beyond web and mobile

Adobe Experience Manager Minuses

  • Can be expensive (free trial, then quote based pricing that starts in the mid-five figures)
  • Requires design and web development skills to be truly effective
  • Can feel intimidating to learn, steep learning curve
  • Some user reports that the cloud version can be unstable
  • Designed primarily for Enterprise businesses

Contentful

APIs are king on the Contentful CMS platform, which are embedded in its operating technology. This makes it an excellent choice for Headless Content Management Systems (HCMS), which rely on APIs for application integrations. This distinctive technology allows developers to break away from templates and build their own customized content models, which explains why so many software engineers prefer to build websites using Contentful. It gives us a lot of control and options with customized scripts and application APIs that can be decoupled from the web interface. This platform offers robust security for critical data through extensive caching and multiple redundancies that provide speedier content delivery, owing to a “read-only” publishing mode that permits only authorized personnel access to the backend. Contentful isn’t a viable option for DIY web designers with little advanced training. This is not a drag, drop and populate platform. It takes skill and training to make it an effective, fast and secure CMS option – but if your company plans to build a website using HCMS, Contentful is a powerful option used by  brands such as Disney, Babbel and Electronic Arts (EA).

Contentful Pluses

  • Free and premium versions, moderately priced starting at $39/month
  • Fast and secure. Extensive caching and multiple redundancies that offer faster load times and greater data security; multi-factor authentication; version history; simple roll-back capabilities
  • Infrastructure level content
  • Real-time content editing for collaborators
  • Robust API
  • Flexible customizations and integrations
  • Custom scripts
  • Straightforward Headless CMS integration with Node, React, PHP and ASP.NET
  • Good for all types of businesses, from small to Enterprise
  • Added security with role-based user permissions and multi-factor authentication

Contentful Minuses

  • Requires a skilled technical team/software engineer to get the most out of it
  • Full website is managed through Contentful, which may not be a “minus” for everyone
  • Field deletions require multipart referencing actions
  • Can be confusing for those unfamiliar with the platform’s Gatsby starter kit and Netlify
  • Reported performance issues on Firefox with some of that browser’s plugins

Contentstack

This CMS platform gets high marks for being clean, flexible and fast, while offering reliable customer support. Like Contentful, this is not a DIY platform. It’s excellent for delivering an omnichannel, digital experience for your customers. It lends itself well to Headless CMS, which requires a higher level of technical expertise. Software engineers appreciate its speed and flexibility, which can save a lot of time. Being API-driven means that it lends itself well to Headless CMS.

Contentstack Pluses

  • Fast content delivery
  • Flexible, nimble and scalable schema
  • Straightforward interface
  • 2-factor authentication with 256-bit encryption
  • Built in asset manager
  • Responsive customer service

Contentstack Minuses

  • User interface can be daunting
  • Setting up asset URL redirects are not intuitive 
  • Some processes, such as creating tables for web and mobile, can create development hurdles
  • Not as user-friendly as some platforms for non-technical collaborators and content contributors

Kontent

Kentico Kontent (previously called “Cloud”) is a HCMS that offers a high degree of control over the lifecycle of all content in a unified environment employing a user-friendly and intuitive content management and authoring experience. Kontent is a good option for larger organizations with hefty budgets and less ideal for smaller businesses with smaller teams and budgets.

Kontent Pluses

  • Free trial and free versions available
  • Reliable security
  • Supports multilingual content
  • Easy API integration with varied systems across the digital stack
  • Customizable templates
  • Content versioning
  • Mobile optimized with responsive design
  • Content scheduling
  • SEO support
  • Website analytics
  • Role-based user permissions
  • Multi-factor authentication

Kontent Minuses

  • Subscription pricing is high for smaller businesses and projects at just under $10K/year
  • Taxonomy structure is developer dependent, leaving lots of room for error for less skilled users
  • Admin UI is only available in English
  • Copying and publishing content across domains is manual and can be time-consuming
  • No e-forms, audio content or image editor

Strapi

Strapi is an open-source, self-hosted platform and offers a 100 percent Javascript HCMS solution that is easy to adapt, offers flexible data fields, and can be deployed and customized using a Linux, Mac or Windows operating system. It is intended for use by experienced website and application developers and is, therefore, not a tool an inexperienced web designer could use without encountering difficulties. Strapi is very developer-centric, which is why so many software engineers prefer it over some other options.

Strapi Pluses

  • Free version; Subscriptions starting at $29/mo per project
  • Easy to set up and configure
  • Existing blueprints that allow you to create, read, update and delete data
  • Manage user settings and permissions easily
  • Multi-language support
  • Secure API access
  • Multi-databases support (SQLite, MongoDB, Postgres)
  • GraphQL or RESTful for consuming API from any client (React, Vue, Angular, or mobile apps, IoT)
  • Auto-generated documentation with 1-click integration

Strapi Minuses

  • Lacking a wide selection of plugins and extensions
  • Slow rollout of new features
  • Requires a skilled technical team/software engineer to get the most out of it
  • Some difficulties in combining the API and admin management panels for setting roles and rights
  • Tricky to deploy on production servers, such as AWS and Heroku

Again, there are other HCMS options available. I suggest that you do your own research based on your company’s specific needs and your technical teams’ skill sets. Gartner Peer Insights is a good place to start for taking a look at what other web and application developers have to say about the myriad platforms out there.

You may also want to read: 

Deep Dive into Headless CMS Front-End Options

What Is the Field of Headless CMS Options?

Culture Foundry is a next-level digital agency that helps you thrive in digital. We build, evolve and support websites and applications for clients who are graduating to the next level of complexity in their digital ventures. Our uncommon strengths are headless CMS architectures, design systems and 24/7 support. If you're not thriving in digital, you can be: Contact us to learn more.

(Psst! We also happen to be a great place to work.)

Back To Top
×Close search
Search